Book Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The First World War” by Jim Eldridge

I think this is a very good book for many reasons, but it’s quite obvious it was written from a British point of view (Professor Ian Beckett of Rutherford College, University of Kent, is listed as Consultant), especially because of its glaring omissions.

But let’s start with the positives.  The book is loaded with reader-friendly infographics, excellent and colorful maps, photos, fact boxes, and pretty good, if brief, coverage of most aspects of the war.  I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

The only criticism I have of [that part of] the book is the inclusion of too many exclamation marks.  The whole war was unimaginable; there is no reason to keep throwing in exclamations!

Let’s proceed to the first hint you get that this book was produced in Britain, which would be the story of the Gallipoli Campaign. The area of the battle was extremely important; the Dardanelles is a narrow strait leading to the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Black Sea.

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

It was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, blocking off both a supply route to the Russians and preventing the Allies from conquering the Ottomans. The Battle of Gallipoli turned out to be a huge disaster for the Allies, giving true meaning to the term “turkey shoot” since the Turks had an open field of fire from the heights on the Allies trying to advance. But  most tellingly:  whose idea was it, and who was responsible for its poor planning and execution?  A large role was played by Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, never mentioned anywhere in the book.

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians "landed" upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians “landed” upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Churchill fails to appear at least two additional times when he definitely should have.  The next occasion came with the sinking of the Lusitania, which was a major factor in bringing the U.S. into the war.  Churchill has long been suspected of knowing the Lusitania would be in danger, but of welcoming the opportunity to get the U.S. involved.  As Hampton Sides wrote in a recent review of Erik Larson’s new book about the Lusitania:

“Shortly before the disaster, Churchill had written in a confidential letter that it was ‘most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.’ Afterward, he all but celebrated the sinking as a great Allied victory, saying, ‘The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.’”

But the most important omission of the many roles of Churchill comes with the very sketchy discussion of the part the British played in the disposition of the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia and Palestine, the awful effects of which we are still experiencing today. The secret agreement dividing the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence was known as The Sykes-Picot Agreement. The ways in which the Allies decided to split up the region were rather mind-numbingly complex, but were designed to ensure, inter alia, that Britain would have access to the oil in the area.  As a “New Yorker” article on the history of the agreement points out, “the original Sykes-Picot map . . . is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.”

Mark Sykes of Britain and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot of France

[And in fact, some of the most powerful ideologies taking hold in the Middle East, such as Nasserism in Egypt, and Baathism in Iraq and Syria, have been in response to the agreement. A leader of the Islamic State or ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, specifically referenced his intention to erase the shame of the secret French-British pact of 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as one of the goals of his movement.] Certainly there were a number of other important players who divided up the Middle East like pieces on a chess board, but Churchill was a major actor. 

T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”)

There are a couple of other flagrant omissions, besides that of Churchill.  The text makes it seem as if the Russian Revolution was mainly a reaction to the wealth gap, war failures, and food shortages experienced during the reign of the Russian leader at the time, Nicholas II.  Certainly these played a role, but Russia had a long history of these problems. The spread of new intellectual movements, in particular Marxism, both in Russia specifically and roiling the waters throughout Europe generally, made a huge contribution as well.  The book only records that Lenin, who was a “revolutionary,” and his group of “Bolsheviks” (undefined), set up a “communist” state (likewise unexplained).

Lenin addressing troops in Moscow on may 25, 1919. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Finally, towards the end of the book, the casualties are toted up, along with mention of “shell shock” (today called PTSD) and the single phrase about civilians that “many more died from disease or famine brought about the war.”  In fact, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, spread with the help of troop movements around the world, killed more people than the war itself, estimated by the U.S. Department of Health  at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.  A fifth of the world’s population was infected including 28% of all Americans.  An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war.  That seems like it would be worth a mention.

But, the fact is, there are numerous histories of World War I, and depending on the historian, country of origin, archives accessed, and year published, you will see many different versions of what happened.  This book does a great job at introducing the subject to students.  All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear.

Evaluation:  Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics about the Great War. The publisher recommends the book for ages 7 and up.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2014

Winston Churchill

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